Navigant Research Blog

Unisys Plunges into Smart Grid Security

— September 10, 2014

Unisys recently entered the smart grid cyber security market with a white paper, titled Innovatively Evade Energy and Utility Cyber-Assaults, which introduces its cyber security offering, Unisys Stealth.  Unlike many other mainstream security companies that have attempted to enter utility cyber security, Unisys appears to understand that control systems are different and need to be thought about differently.

The paper lists six threats that smart grids face.  One is modernization – although, without modernization, there is no smart grid.  It is a necessary evil.  This section begins, “Paradoxically, modernization within the industry is also introducing new vulnerabilities.”  Of course.  When you replace an electromechanical device with an IT-enabled device, it’s a given that the IT threat vectors will increase substantially.  As I pointed out in a recent blog, there are indeed new risks, but they are more than offset by new benefits.

The same paragraph continues by explaining that these industrial control systems (ICSs) are “often subject to periodic patches and firmware upgrades.”  There is a common misconception among enterprise IT security practitioners that control systems are patched in the same way as enterprise IT systems – but that’s not the case.  Many control systems have one maintenance window every 2 years, and that’s the only time they will be patched.  We don’t do Black Tuesday in the control system world.

Insecure Legacy

Unisys accurately states that many existing cyber security technologies are reactive and, therefore, are useless against unknown (zero-day) attacks.  However, this is not news to the ICS community, and application whitelisting and behavior-learning security tools that observe anomalous traffic have been in place for some time now.

I would also like to know if Stealth runs on its own hardware, and, if it runs in line with the control network, what kind of latency it adds to communications.

The white paper claims, “The primary reason for maintaining status quo regarding improved security is the concern that any new measure may introduce instability in highly reliable systems.”  I disagree; the primary reason that the status remains quo is lack of funding.  Whether that’s due to utilities being cash-strapped or security officers being unable to create a compelling business case for the funding is an open question.  The second reason for the status quo is that many devices are too old to have any security onboard but still have remaining service life and aren’t going anywhere.

Wide Screen

The strongest point that Unisys makes is that the main obstacle to winning the cyber war is a patchwork strategy.  This is the crux of control system cyber security.  My research in the past 18 months has uncovered a marked increase in the number of utilities asking for security architectures, for a single approach to security for their control systems.  Whether those architectures will translate to implementations is unclear.  But at least utilities are asking to see the big picture.  It would be good if Unisys offered to be part of that large-scale solution, but the conclusion of this white paper seems to say that Stealth is the solution.  All security vendors can be part of the solution.  None of them are the solution.

 

Building Sensors Reach Vanishing Point

— September 9, 2014

Sensors play a critical role in building operations, from safety and security to optimizing building system performance.  Building energy management systems, lighting controls, and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are slowly incorporating more sensors as their prices fall and their values rise.  Navigant Research’s report Advanced Sensors in Smart Buildings delves into the future of the market for sensors that have built-in processors, networking capability, and the capability to sense more than one phenomenon at a time.  Yet, as design elements in rooms and ceilings, most sensors, like the traditional thermostat, are unappealing appendages with little aesthetic value.  The good news is that the ugly boxes and knobs are shrinking and may disappear from view altogether.

Redwood Systems (acquired last year by networking company Commscope) recently released its third-generation light and motion sensor.  Redwood’s approach is to capture fine-grain occupancy and light levels to deliver lighting precisely to those in offices who need it, when they want it, even with shifting levels of sunlight.  Its lighting solution and accompanying open application programming interface (API) were deployed at the San Francisco headquarters of the software management firm GitHub, then promptly customized to enable the employees to tailor light levels as they see fit.  Redwood’s sensor looks like a small lump on the ceiling and can even be embedded in LED lighting systems themselves.

Sense of Control

The next generation of sensors may not look like anything.  New materials and manufacturing techniques will hide sensors from view, either embedding them in equipment or as objects to paste on surfaces as needed.  Imagine living in a house with smooth walls and ceilings.  No light switches or thermostats in view, other than as decorative objects.  Norwegian company Thinfilm has developed a printable temperature sensor that can function as both a temperature sensor and display for a myriad of applications.  Funded by PARC, Xerox’s research arm, Thinfilm has focused its efforts on thin labels for consumer products (like produce) that have tight temperature and lifetime tolerances.  Thinfilm has also developed advanced ID cards for people that can display names and access levels to different locations.  With data storage and near-field communications capability, Thinfilm’s products have the potential to leap from smart temperature labels to flat room temperature sensors with built-in displays and network communication.

The French company ISORG is also developing a technology using printed sensors.  Its flat light sensors are designed not for occupancy or light level applications, but for applications where light level variances can be used to control equipment, like consumer devices.  And it just received $8.7 million in financing,  bringing new attention to the printed sensor space.  This technology may jump into equipment themselves, like HVAC fans and pumps, where minuscule sensors can enable more granular control and system optimization.

 

Distributed Biogas Gains Footing in Revised Standard

— September 8, 2014

In July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized an extension of the beleaguered Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS2) to carve out a pathway for renewable biogas to qualify as a cellulosic fuel.  Expanding the scope of the RFS2 beyond liquid transportation markets could have promising implications for the slow-to-emerge cellulosic biofuels market.

Under the RFS2, the EPA requires domestic refiners and importers of transportation fuel to blend increasing volumes of renewable fuels into conventional gasoline and diesel.  The EPA sets the renewable volume obligations for various renewable fuels every year, and regulated entities must demonstrate their compliance by acquiring and retiring renewable identification numbers (RINs), which are publicly traded credits that fluctuate in value.

RINs provide an important financial incentive for the nascent advanced biofuels industry, helping these fuels compete with conventional fuels in the marketplace.  Cellulosic biofuels, a fuel pathway slated to deliver the greatest volume under the rule, have fallen short of expectations every year due to less capacity being built than otherwise predicted.

Expanding Universe

Under the expanded rules, biogas-derived compressed natural gas (CNG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), and electricity used to power electric vehicles would qualify for cellulosic RINs.  The final rule is likely to lead to a substantial increase in the production of cellulosic biofuels and create new markets for materials previously regarded as waste.  Opportunities for upgrading biogas to so-called bioCNG or bioLNG – also referred to as biomethane or renewable biogas and already used in fleet applications like garbage trucks and municipal buses – currently show high promise for biogas-to-transportation fuel.

As outlined in the U.S. government’s Biogas Opportunities Roadmap report released last month, biogas has broad applications across a range of diverse industries.  Livestock farms, industrial wastewater treatment facilities, industrial food processing facilities, commercial buildings and institutions, and landfills all produce biogas – either directly or in the form of waste feedstocks that can be converted into biogas.  According to Navigant Research’s Renewable Biogas report, the biogas capture market across the United States is expected to reach more than $4 billion in annual revenue by 2020.

All in all, biogas remains a vastly underutilized resource across the United States when compared to countries like Germany that have used a range of incentives to drive investment, particularly in agricultural applications.

The Curse of Versatility

The challenge for biogas in the United States is that to some it’s a fuel source, to others a waste mitigation strategy, and to others a distributed generation resource.  That makes it difficult to tailor policies that address all potential opportunities.  Adding to the confusion, distributed biogas is often treated by utilities as a strategic resource alongside solar PV and small wind, when in fact it can be utilized in the form of a traditional generator set, a fuel cell, or sometimes concurrently, in combined heat and power configurations.

With these issues in mind, the EPA’s final rule relating to biogas introduced a relatively novel and subtle feature for renewable energy markets: incentive flexibility.  Under the rule, the EPA not only expands the scope of RFS2, but allows the same amount of renewable electricity derived from biogas to give rise to RINs for transportation applications and renewable energy credits for electricity generation, while also qualifying for incentives under state renewable portfolio standards.

This potential for multiple revenue streams unlocks the versatility of biogas as a resource and is likely to attract new investment in the U.S. biogas market.

 

Hidden Meters Provide Visible Savings

— September 8, 2014

A fundamental challenge in commercial building energy management is in understanding where all the electrons are flowing.  Most buildings have a meter that will tell the facility or energy manager how much power is being consumed, and smart meters have contributed greatly to their insight (in some parts of the world, including the United States, groups of buildings share a meter).  And many, such as apartment buildings, have dedicated meters for each tenant.

But to find out how much power is consumed by tenants or equipment, a finer grain view is needed.  It sounds easy to simply deploy more meters or submeters, watch the data flow in, and manage accordingly.  But the barriers to additional submeters, including the cost of deployment and regulatory issues, are limiting their deployment.

Most large heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) and other large equipment vendors now sell embedded energy meters with their equipment, making energy management for large systems possible, albeit more expensive.  Today, an alternative is on the rise, in the form of in-line circuit breaker meters.  These devices snap on to the feeder wires of the breakers, recording the power used inside the cable without interfering with it.  All of these companies are touting the fast and easy installation, along with the value of actionable data for facility managers.  These are compelling arguments, especially considering the vast amount of commercial space and the massive plug loads associated with them.

Thinking Inside the Box

A few companies use these innocuous looking grey boxes as the data source to manage energy, displacing the traditional meter and submeter streams and setting up an interesting set of partnerships along the way.   Pennsylvania-based E-Mon sells a line of circuit breaker submeters that capture power and can then communicate via Ethernet (or TIA-485-A) with an energy management system (EMS).  While E-Mon has its own software package, the company recently announced a partnership with Honeywell to use its Attune Energy Dashboard service.   Similarly, Panoramic Power formed a partnership with Lucid, joining its ConnectNow partner group.  Panoramic Power sells only energy services, not the devices themselves, and uses wireless as opposed to wired solutions.

Enertiv both sells devices and EMSs, using Ethernet to communicate with the EMS.  In late July, the New York City-based company received $750,000 in seed funding, indicating the interest in this space.  This interest is rubbing off on newcomer Bractlet.  The Austin-based company, receiver of venture capital and seed funding from Start-Up Chile, sees circuit-level data as a way to validate the upfront costs needed for building retrofits and a way for building and energy managers to measure the value of retrofits.

It’s a compelling business case.  When it comes to retrofits, the first question asked is, “What will this retrofit cost me?” Followed by, “How long will it take to recoup my investment?”  The last question is the most difficult: “How will I know if those savings are actually achieved?” Bractlet, along with its competitors in this emerging space, may have the right approach to answering those questions.

 

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